By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on December 21, 2023
An Editorial Opinion
After three months of deafening silence on its plans to collect $527,280,064 that U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture declared on September 18, 2023, was due and owing to Alabama A&M University by the state of Alabama, the university is finally ready to fight in court.
Alabama A&M has hired a national law firm – MaynardNexsen – and a team of lawyers to wage this court fight.
According to a December 20, 2023, “Cease and Desist” letter from MaynardNexsen, the state of Alabama is NOT the opponent in this court fight. This is NOT a court fight to collect Alabama A&M’s $527,280,064 debt from the state.
No, that kind of court fight takes real courage, which Alabama A&M is sorely lacking.
This is a legal fight to shut me up as an independent online journalist who cannot be bought. Alabama A&M wants me to stop editorializing about this $527,280,064 debt and the school’s failure to collect it.
Alabama A&M also wants me to remove my published editorial opinions relating to the $527,280,064 debt from the Internet.
Additionally, Alabama A&M wants me to forego my First Amendment right to publish future articles and editorial opinions about Alabama A&M University.
The threatening letter was sent to me after I published an article yesterday about Dr. Roderick Watts, Chairman of the Alabama A&M board of trustees, and his apparent conflict of interest arising from a legal dispute with the state over this $527,280,064 debt.
Alabama A&M University is Threatening My Freedom of Speech as a Journalist
Here are the pertinent excerpts from Alabama A&M’s threatening letter:
“This law firm has been retained by Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (Alabama A&M or the University) in connection with your defamatory and improper publications regarding Alabama A&M and members of its staff and leadership, including Dr. Daniel K. Wims (the Alabama A&M Parties). The Alabama A&M Parties have authorized us to send this pre-suit communication to you.
You are publishing false, defamatory, and disparaging comments regarding the Alabama A&M Parties to the public, and this defamatory and disparaging conduct is not isolated, but is systematic, continuous and ongoing. There is no legitimate interest served in you continuing to smear the names of the Alabama A&M Parties on your internet postings, including the website DonaldWatkins.com and Facebook. We are ready to show-in court if necessary-that your postings are false and defamatory, including some that are defamatory per se, falsely accusing the Alabama A&M Parties of vile, improper conduct in statements that are intentionally harmful to their reputations.....
In addition to false, defamatory and very disturbing statements about members of the faculty and staff and others associated with Alabama A&M, your internet postings specifically include false claims about the following: Dr. Wims having been terminated from prior employment positions; Dr. Wims having allegedly made improper sexual advances; Dr. Wims stating that Alabama A&M would not be seeking money from the State of Alabama; Dr. Wims having misled students, faculty, staff members, alumni and community supporters of Alabama A&M; Dr. Wims being a sexual predator; Dr. Wims having an addiction for sexual encounters with men and women; Dr. Wims exploring counseling options for a sexual addiction; as well as purposeful and malicious mischaracterizations of prior legal proceedings involving Alabama A&M.
Because your statements have no basis in fact, your conduct violates well-established Alabama law. Alabama A&M's faculty members, staff and leadership are educated and respected professionals in the community and have spent many years building positive reputations. Your defamatory and disparaging conduct has already caused and is continuing to cause irreparable damage to the Alabama A&M Parties' reputations and character. In addition to the personal attacks, your postings are also intentionally targeting Alabama A&M' s business interests in attempts to interfere with its business relationships and harm its reputation.
Therefore, the Alabama A&M Parties demand that you immediately cease and desist from engaging in any further activities that defame them, disparage their professional interests, or any further attempts to tortiously interfere with and harm the University's business, including the contractual relations of Alabama A&M.....”
My Duty to Fight Alabama A&M's Unlawful Restrictions on Freedom of Speech
As a professional journalist, I take every threat to freedom of speech very seriously. This is particularly true when the suppressor of freedom of speech is a public institution in Alabama -- a state that arrests and jails journalists just like they do in Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.
The 1964 landmark case protecting freedom of speech for journalists – New York Times v. Sullivan – actually arose from a Montgomery, Alabama public official’s defamation claims against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and four other black pastors who were leading the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
White public officials across the South used state court defamation claims as a tool of intimidation against Black activists. Their goal was to stop Blacks from questioning and challenging the conditions of their second-class citizenship in the racially segregated South.
Alabama A&M is doing the same thing here. Alabama A&M is acting as a surrogate for the political forces in Alabama who seek to keep Black Alabamians downtrodden “from the cradle to the grave.” This is why the target of Alabama A&M pre-litigation exercise is me, rather than the state of Alabama. The “Cease and Desist” letter is used as a tool for intimidation.
You can read my response to Alabama A&M’s threat to curtail the exercise of my freedom of speech rights by clicking here.
I am a freelance professional journalist with more than 900 copyrighted and published news articles and editorial opinions. My published articles and editorials regarding the conduct of public entities and public officials conform to the legal principles enunciated in New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny.
I stand by the truth of the statements contained in the cache of editorial opinions referenced in Alabama A&M’s threatening letter, as well as my First Amendment right to express such opinions.
I do not start fights, but I never run from them. This is especially true when it comes to protecting our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.